Contemplating the Disappearance of Original Place Names in Korea

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Contemplating the Disappearance of Original Place Names in Korea


Lee Ki-bong

Curator, Old and Rare Collection Division

National Library of Korea


Why did I write this book?

For the past 18 years I have been researching and compiling place names found in old Korean maps and geography books. Seven books from this effort have been published by the Kyujanggak Institute of Korean Studies at Seoul National University, including Dongyeodo: Commentary and Index, and another nine, including Place Names in Seoul Found in Old Maps, have been published by the Old and Rare Collection Division of the National Library of Korea. Although these books were published as part of my paid work, I feel pride when I look at these volumes shelved in my library. At the same time, I have always felt a sense of sadness over the loss of original place names in Korea as they became obsolete and disappeared over the past 100 years.

Since ancient times, Koreans have borrowed Chinese characters to write their place names. While King Sejong (1418-1450), the fourth ruler of the Joseon Dynasty, created and promulgated Hangul in 1446 as an official writing system for the Korean language, it was at first only used by women and commoners. Official documents continued to be written in Chinese characters, and so were place names. The problem was that the sound uttered when reading place names written in Chinese characters differs from the pronunciation of the original place names.

When Chinese characters are used in China, there is no separation between the meaning of a character and its sound. In Korea, a specific Chinese character is matched to the meaning of each Korean word in order to represent Korean words when writing with Chinese characters. However, when spoken, the characters are pronounced in imitation of Chinese rather than the Korean word. There is a resulting separation between the sound and meaning of a Chinese character in the way that Koreans use it. For example, the Chinese character ‘’ means ‘sky’ or haneul in Korean, but is pronounced cheon by Koreans. When representing original Korean place names in Chinese characters, some were written by using the meaning of the relevant Chinese characters while others used the sound of the Chinese characters. Starting in the Goryeo Dynasty, Koreans began to pronounce place names based on how they pronounced the Chinese characters rather than the pronunciation of the original Korean word represented, and these original names started disappearing from people’s minds.

After universal public education was introduced during the Japanese colonial period and with the economic development of South Korea in later decades, more and more Koreans developed the ability to read Chinese characters. Beginning in the 1960s, the use of the Hangul alphabet greatly expanded. Place names started to be written in Korean letters, but based upon the sound of the Chinese characters previously representing the name. Sadly, as a result, the original place names were rapidly eradicated. One example can be found in the address of the National Library of Korea, which is 201 Banpo-daero Seocho-gu Seoul. The original Korean name for Banpo was Seoritgae. Locals had called the area Seoritgae for over a thousand years, but it was written 盤浦 in official documents by combining the character (meaning ‘winding’ and read as ban) with (meaning ‘shore’ and read as po). Since the Japanese occupation era, the administrative name for the area has been pronounced Banpo and its old Korean name has disappeared from memory.

My mother told me that when she was a child, the use of original place names was commonplace. She was born in 1935 and still remembers most of these names. Born in 1967, however, I grew up with place names in Chinese characters. This happened not just in my hometown but across the country. Over the past 18 years that I have worked on the compilation of place names found in old maps and geography books, I felt sad about the loss of the original names. That is why I started writing a book about original place names, and the results were published by Saemoonsa in 2016 under the title Disappearing Pure Korean Place Names. The Korean version is ‘슬픈 우리 땅이름.’ The book was renamed ‘잃어버린 우리말 땅이름’ in 2021 when the second edition was published with the table of contents and text partly revised.



The organization of the book

Chapter 1, Names of Villages That Have Disappeared Over the Past 100 Years, uses the example of Geumsa-myeon in Yeoju-si, Gyeonggi Province to examine how original Korean place names were erased from South Korea’s administrative addresses. For this work, I traced original names and their corresponding names in Chinese characters for the 17 lis1) in Geumsa-myeon. According to my findings, there were no cases in which the pronunciation of the original name and its pronunciation based on Chinese characters were the same.

Chapter 2, Anticipating the Revival of the Good Old Name “Dokseom,” explores how Dokdo, an island in the East Sea that is under the jurisdiction of Ulleung-gun, North Gyeongsang Province, came to be called Dokdo instead. Dokdo is a combination of the two Chinese characters (menaing ‘alone’ and read as dok) and (meaning ‘island’ and read as do) to refer to what was called Dokseom by Ulleung islanders. In this chapter, I also refuted Japan’s claim over the island in detail and suggested that the original names be restored for all the places in Ulleung-gun.

Chapter 3, Place Names Serving as Signposts for Travelers on the Road, applies the example of three roads that connect Seoul with the surrounding areas in order to show how most of the place names along those roads changed after people began reading them in Chinese characters.

Chapter 4, Place Names of Boatmen Inscribed on the Waterways, follows the river route used to transport commodities to Seoul along the Han River as it examines and records the now-obsolete place names and the names based on Chinese characters that replaced them.

In both Chapter 5, Pure Korean Place Names in Outer Seoul, and Chapter 6, Exploration of Place Names Inside the Seoul City Walls, I show how most places in Seoul, where it is often wrongfully believed that the original place names were the same as those pronounced based on Chinese characters, were actually once called by different names. I also explain the process through which they changed to names pronounced like their Chinese characters.

In Chapter 7, In Search of Lost Hometown Names, I trace the place names in my hometown of Bibong-myeon in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province and the names I saw on my way to school in Suwon when I was young in order to examine how the original names were replaced by names pronounced like their Chinese characters in both administrative and non-administrative place names.

Restoring original place names and Korea’s historical and cultural identity

Few Koreans know that the words han and gan, which have the same meaning as and are pronounced similarly to the ‘Khan’ in Genghis Khan (1162-1227) (who built a great empire spanning Europe and Asia), were commonly used Korean words. In Korean, both han and gan mean the biggest, the leader, or king. The han () in Daehanminguk, the official Korean name for the Republic of Korea, came from the hans in Mahan (馬韓), Jinhan (辰韓), and Byeonhan (弁韓), the three ancient kingdoms on the Korean peninsula. Here, the Chinese character was chosen to represent the Korean words han or gan due to their similarity in pronunciation. The same is true with the ‘han’ in the Hangang River, the largest river in Korea: it is represented by the Chinese character based on the similarity in pronunciation. Names such as han-nae, which means a big river, and han-yeoul, which means a strong current, were once commonly found across the country.

The name Seoul for the capital of South Korea originated from Seorabeol (徐羅伐), which was the name of one of the twelve small regional powers that comprised a kingdom named Jinhan. Around 504, Seorabeol conquered Jinhan and renamed itself Silla (新羅). The name Seorabeol began to be used to indicate the capital of the new country. Through the consecutive periods of the Silla Kingdom (BC 59-AD 935), Goryeo Dynasty (AD 918-1392) and Joseon Dynasty (AD 1392-1910), Seorabeol became a general term for capital and its pronunciation changed over the course of time to become Seoul.

Many years ago, it was not easy to find the traces of original Korean names in administrative terms. Thanks to the administrative reform in street names introduced in 2009, however, a significant number of original Korean names could be restored. For example, the pungnap (風納) in Pungnap-dong, Seoul, is a combination of two Chinese characters chosen to indicate its original name of baram-deuri: (wind, pung) and (come, nap). For 100 years, pungnap was used as the official name for the area. With the 2009 reform, however, a portion of the streets in Pungnap-dong were renamed Baramdeuri-gil.

Although the 2009 street name reform restored some original Korean names, there are still more cases in which names as pronounced in Chinese characters remain. While the basic function of place names is to distinguish one area from another, they also embody the historical and cultural identities of the people who lived in a certain area for a long time. In this regard, restoring original Korean place names could support a restoration of Korea’s historical and cultural identity.


The implications of the publication of an English version of the book

While I was writing the book, I held no expectation it would become a bestseller. If I have intended to write a book appealing broadly to general readers, I would have chosen to write about place names that might attract public attention. How many people would really be interested in a book that simply lists hundreds of place names and illustrates how the original names were replaced by pronunciations based on Chinese characters? However, I wanted to provide some helpful information to the small number of people who may be interested in these original place names that have gradually disappeared from human memory over the past 100 years. I also wanted to counter the claim that Dokdo is Japanese territory by presenting an extensive and systematic analysis of how original place names were replaced by names in Chinese characters.

I was right about the sales of the book: they were poor. Thanks to the few people who care about the preservation of original place names, however, the book was able to be reprinted. To my great honor, furthermore, my publisher, who felt sad about the disappearance of original place names, decided to publish an English version: Disappearing Pure Korean Place Names (2022).

One of the implications of publishing an English version of the book is that non-Korean speakers now have access to information on original Korean place names that speak to the history and lives of Koreans. With the exception of the name Seoul, most of the place names in Korea that are known to non-Korean speakers are based on the pronunciations of Chinese characters, providing help to research in the genealogy of language and geographical names. I hope Disappearing Pure Korean Place Names will be of help to academics and also to general individuals who are interested in language and geographical names.

I am also glad that this book introduces a further example of the drastic changes brought out by the societal transition to the modern world. Modern capitalism, which began in the West, inevitably wrought changes on many familiar things for people everywhere around the world, including place names. Korea was no exception: in fact, it experienced unprecedented change in terms of both scale and pace. Read this book and you will be surprised!

Lastly, this book uses the history of geographical names to further demonstrate that Dokdo is irrevocably Korean territory. The replacement of the original place names by names pronounced as in Chinese characters occurred not in a limited area, but across the country. Ulleung-gun in Gyeongsangbuk Province was no exception and Dok-seom, which was within the jurisdiction of Ulleung-gun, became Dokdo through this renaming process. Readers of this book will be able to understand from the perspective of geographical names that Dokdo is Korean territory, not Japan’s.




1) Li is an administrative unit.

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